Gerki’s Big Problem
In celebration of our successful Kickstarter campaign for Tales from the Red Dragon Inn, author and SlugFest founder Geoff Bottone has written a series of six stories about how Deirdre, Zot, Fiona and Gerki all met and started adventuring together. Part one and part two are here, so now it’s time for part three. Enjoy!
Gerki’s Big Problem
The voice called out to him, thin and thready, as if it were blown by a feeble, febrile breeze over an abyss. It somehow penetrated the oppressive darkness that had surrounded him, offering a lifeline back into the world. He struggled to hear it.
His eyes fluttered open. Above him hovered Fiona’s very young face which was only slightly obscured by the ragged ends of her new, self-styled “warrior’s haircut.” Despite the fact that she had been attempting to add a dash of reckless heroic bravado in her daily life for the past six months or so, Fiona was biting her lip in a deeply concerned way that was, Gerki imagined, wholly unlike the demeanor of warriors of old.
“Hey,” he said.
“You went all creepy-eyed,” she said. “And wandery. Again. I’ve been following you for hours.”
Gerki struggled to sit up and noticed that his back and legs were uncomfortably cold and wet. He looked over at Fiona and tried to smile. “Oh no. Did I pee myself, too?”
Fiona snort-laughed and made a disgusted face. “Gross. No. You fell in a puddle.”
The scrawny girl got down underneath Gerki’s left shoulder and pushed him up to his feet. Gerki swallowed, fighting off a last wave of dizziness, and surveyed the area. They were in one of the many small, crooked, and poorly travelled tunnels near Greyport’s Undercity. Moisture drip-dripped through cracks in the ceiling to form numerous puddles on the uneven floor. The whole area was fitfully lit by clumps of phosphorescent glowmoss that tinted everything in a dusty silver glow.
Fiona looked down at him, the concern reappearing on her face. This was still a new thing to Gerki—the looking down part, not the concerned part. Most of the time, during their long, strange friendship, Gerki used to be able to forget that Fiona was a human girl and not a halfling one. Now that she was getting older—and finally getting some regular meals into her, thanks to her living at the orphanage—she was starting to hit a growth spurt. Fiona was now safely half a head taller than he was, a difference in height that he could only alleviate by balancing precariously on his tiptoes. Doing this always managed to give Fiona the giggles, but Gerki knew it was a temporary measure. The little kid he had discovered tailing him in the Undercity tunnels was growing up, and it was going to get harder and harder for Gerki to assert that he was the wiser, all-knowing, “older brother” figure in Fiona’s life without investing in a series of increasingly taller footstools.
“I’m fine, Fiona,” he said, turning away from her nervously and rubbing his fingers through the damp curls of his hair.
“How can you say that?” shouted Fiona. “These weird episodes are happening more and more often, Gerk! You need to see a cleric.”
“What? You mean like at the temple? So they can put me right back in the orphanage? Oh, no, Fiona. I’m not doing that,” he said, as he turned and walked in what he hoped was the right direction back toward the Undercity.
Fiona hurried along after him. “What’s the big deal, Gerki? You go to the temple. You have someone look you over. You leave before they try to take you back to the orphanage.”
“Not taking that risk, Fi. They’re not locking me up again.”
“It’s not locking you up, Gerki. You get three hots and a cot, an education, and you get to hang out with me, your best friend. What’s so terrible about that?”
“It’s just,” he waved his arms. “It’s not the same for me as it is for you. I can’t stand the starched clothes. The schedules. The praying. The lectures. You’re a good kid, Fiona, so all of that doesn’t bother you so much, but after a while, it really gets to me. It’s like being in prison.”
“Oh, like you’ve been to prison,” Fiona said, smirking.
“Well, no, but I imagine it’s what prison is like, which is practically the same thing. ” Gerki tried to flash a smile he didn’t really feel. “And just like prison, the temple’s never going to catch me! At least, not again.”
“Fine,” said Fiona. “Don’t go to the temple, I guess. Don’t see a cleric. It’s just that…well, I’m worried about you. I’m worried this thing, whatever it is, is going to get worse.”
“I’m worried about me, too. But I’ll be fine. I’ve been in worse scraps. You know that. I’ll just ride this out the same way I’ve ridden out everything else, and hope that I stumble into a big windfall along the way.”
They walked along in silence for a while before Fiona tentatively said, “What about the Thieves’ Guild?”
“What about the Thieves’ Guild?”
“They must have healers for members that have on-the-job accidents, right? And you’re a member!”
He shook his head. “Well, no. I almost was, but I’m on their blacklist now. They catch me thieving anything worth more than a loaf of bread, and they’ll chop off my little fingers, or brand me, or worse.”
“Wait,” Fiona cocked her head, looking thoughtful. “Why did they put you on the blacklist? You tried to steal something, but you got caught. Are thieves who work for the guild never supposed to get caught?”
He sighed. “Well, sort of. It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“So, tell me,” she said.
And Gerki, finally wanting to get this story out of his system after months of letting it pinch and prick and prod at his insides, did.
It was supposed to be a really simple job, appropriate for the skills of the fresh cadre of apprentices who were hoping to become permanent members of the Greyport Thieves’ Guild. The senior students at the Mages’ Collegium had just returned from their required half-year work study, “in the field,” and were displaying the interesting artifacts that they had recovered in the grand pavilion in Enchantment Park. The guild higher-ups had already cased the exhibit, and had assigned point values to each piece in the collection based on its materials, aesthetic beauty, rarity, and magical power. Any apprentice who got away with any of the artifacts would be elevated to the rank of Footpad, but everyone suspected that the guildmasters would bestow special favor upon whichever of them acquired the highest score.
Gerki and the other five members of his cadre had left the guildhall together, but had gone their separate ways shortly before reaching the magically illuminated fence that marked the border of Enchantment Park. They had done this for two reasons. The first was so that they would not draw undue attention from passersby, or any of the third year mages sent to guard the exhibit, the second was so that none of them would “accidentally” interfere with any of their brethren’s efforts to swipe a choice piece of loot from the pavilion.
Gerki kept an eye out for the others as he made his way into the park, just in case. Although “Honor Among Thieves” was the official motto of the guild, it was more a frustrated suggestion hissed through clenched teeth than a rule.
There was no sign of the others as Gerki crawled through the softly tinkling pixie grass growing along the bank of Spellbinder’s Pond. Normally, he would have avoided the chiming vegetation, but there was a westerly wind blowing down out of the mountains that had already set the grass to ringing. Better for Gerki to hide in the grasses and make the sounds that were supposed to be made, as opposed to silently staying on the walking paths and looking very obviously out of place.
The grasses ended near the small boathouse used to store the enchanted swan boats that plied the rippling waters of the pond during the daytime. With a final carol of bells, Gerki slipped underneath the boathouse’s long eave, hiding itself in its shadow. From this position, he could see up the hillside, past the beds of flowers that had been planted in early spring by the Greyport Botanical Society, and into the pavilion itself.
Orbs of enchanted light hovered in front of magically levitating signs advertising the exhibit. Standing amongst the signs, each one bearing an expression somewhere between proud and extremely bored, were several of the Collegium’s junior students. Their class robes, which had likely been clean this morning, now looked a touch wrinkled and wilted, and their magical staves leaned dangerously as time and gravity slowly won out over yawning wizards and exhausted fingertips.
The nearest mage, a red-haired elf girl standing next to one of the pavilion’s entrances, brought a hand to her mouth as a massive yawn shuddered through her willowy frame.
In the shadow of the boathouse, Gerki smiled. He knew he would have to wait, but he also knew he wouldn’t have to wait long.
A few minutes later, the red-haired mage—desperate to keep herself awake and alert—began doing stretches, flapping her arms at her sides, talking to herself, and anything else she could think of to keep herself awake. Gerki watched in anticipation as she swiftly graduated from walking in place, to pacing around in a circle, to taking longer and longer jaunts back and forth along the pathway running parallel to the pavilion. Each time she came back to her post, she looked just a hair more determined. A hair more alert. Each time, her trip grew longer, but also more vigorous. He would have to time things very carefully in order to make it.
Gerki moved to the very edge of the shadow cast by the eave and crouched low, the muscles of his legs tense and ready. He felt his blood start to run a little hot, felt the tips of his fingers quiver with anticipation. Ahead of him, the mage girl was on her way back to her post. She took a deep breath, stopped, turned on her heel, and continued walking.
He ran as quickly and as quietly as his frame and his skills would allow him, his eyes darting to the limits of his peripheral vision to make sure no one—whether brethren thief, Collegium guard, or random stranger—was in the vicinity. Gerki’s feet fairly flew over the grass, barely ruffling the petals of the Botanical Society’s rare and colorful blooms as he passed. His heart thudded in his chest as he reached the shoulder of the path that went past the pavilion. A quick turn to his right. The red-headed mage was still on the latest leg of her wakeup walk. She hadn’t turned. He took a deep breath and, like a struggling diver surging to reach the surface, and air, and light, plunged into the pavilion’s interior.
As Gerki crouched down in between two display cases, catching his breath and regaining his bearings, the red-headed mage returned and, with a sigh, resumed her post. He gave a slow, silent ten count, waiting for the pulsing in his ears to slow to a slightly less fevered pace, before poking his head up and looking around.
Even standing up straight, he was still mostly concealed by the temporary display cases that had been erected in neat rows throughout the pavilion. This allowed him to reveal only the top of his head to peer about the exhibit, making it much more likely that he would see other people before they saw him. From what he could tell, the mages had kept all of their guards on the pavilion’s entrances, with no thought to keeping an eye on the interior. That rookie mistake on their part would make things much easier on his part. Doubly so, considering that, from what he could tell, he was the first of the apprentice thieves to have made it this far.
Now then, he thought, smiling, time to find a trifle worth filching and get out of here.
He knew that he could technically grab anything and still advance, no matter its value, but his success at getting into the exhibit first, with no entanglements, encouraged Gerki to be just a little bit indulgent with his selection.
There was no shortage of rocks of various shapes and sizes, most of which had runes engraved on them on at least one side. Gerki considered a few before dismissing them as boring, ugly, and probably too heavy to be worth carrying. He paused to look at an egg the size of his fist that was covered in blue-green scales, and almost took it until he realized it was probably fragile and, with his luck, might just hatch while in his possession. There was a statuette of something that looked like a shark, but which had tentacles where its eyes should have been and tusks jutting out of the corners of its too-big mouth. It was fascinating, but also horrifying, and, ultimately, Gerki decided to leave it alone.
Resting on a blue velvet pillow nearby was something a bit more suited to Gerki’s tastes. It was a mask–or, more accurately, half of one–crafted from a single piece of polished silver and studded with precious gemstones. It was meant to be worn over the left side of the face, where it would cover nose, cheek, and eye. Two expertly drilled holes on opposite sides of the mask were anchors for the long piece of ancient, frayed ribbon used to hold the mask on the wearer’s head. The mask looked like it could do with a bit of polishing to remove years of tarnish, but otherwise, it was a uniquely beautiful piece. Gerki imagined that it was worth more than a few points on the guildmasters’ score sheet.
Even as he contemplated its value, Gerki had slipped up to the half mask, pulled slender tools from his hip pouch, and went to work bypassing the lock on the case. A moment later, the lock popped open and Gerki, with a grin of triumph, reached into the case to take ownership of the mask. Now all he needed to do was secure it in his pouch, find a way to distract the mages so he could make it out of the pavilion unseen, and…
Gerki blundered through a maze of colors that warped and shifted all around him. He thought he could hear sounds, but they were either a long way off or heavily muffled, as if by several layers of fabric, several feet of water, or both. He patted at his ear tentatively. Maybe It had become clogged.
“…spel Magic!” roared an unseen person.
“What?” said Gerki, blinking his eyes. He was relieved to see that the colors had stopped moving and had started to resolve into familiar shapes.
All at once, the world snapped into focus. Gerki was still in the pavilion, surrounded by display cases that had either been forcefully knocked over or smashed into. Artifacts of all types and sizes lay strewn about on the floor, haphazardly intermixed with splintered wood and broken glass.
“What the…” said Gerki.
He swung his head around to take in the sudden destruction. He saw several members of his cohort struggling to pick themselves off of the floor or pry themselves out of the wreckage of one or more display cases. They had just about recovered when the young guard mages, all of whom looked harried and frightened, closed on them and began reciting the words of immobilizing spells.
Time to go!
Gerki attempted to retreat the way he came, only to see an older, human man in dark robes blocking his way. He shifted his weight, spun around, and was in the process of looking for another avenue of escape when he suddenly went blind in his left eye.
“Stop!” shouted the tall man.
Gerki stopped. Turned. Looked up at the man. He was an older human, with a greying beard, metal skull cap, a fearsome expression, and the fine jewelry that marked him as an elder wizard of the Collegium. Sitting on the man’s shoulder was a small, fluffy rabbit that looked both completely out of place and easily as angry as the man upon which he perched.
Gerki stared at them both, still trying to process what was happening. Who was this man and his angry bunny? When did his thieving brethren get here? Who destroyed the pavilion exhibit, and why hadn’t Gerki noticed? Why was he suddenly blind in his left eye? Why did it feel like someone was pressing a dull knife blade into the side of his nose?
He found the answer to his last question first when he tentatively moved his left hand to his face and, instead of warm and yielding flesh, felt cold metal. After a moment’s fumbling, he was able to both remove the bejeweled half mask from his face and also restore his full spectrum of vision. This, of course, just raised further questions, such as, why was he wearing the mask? And, more importantly, when had he put it on?
The tall wizard held out a hand. Gerki flinched instinctively, expecting to be on the receiving end of a spell. Instead, nothing happened.
“It’s all right,” said the wizard, though his expression said that it, whatever it was, was anything but. “Just give me the mask.”
“What’s going on?” said Gerki, his voice small.
“The mask,” said the wizard. “Now.”
As if to emphasize the man’s request, the rabbit bared its teeth at Gerki. It seemed to have more than the usual number of teeth for a rabbit, and most of the ones that Gerki saw were very sharp. He realized that he was going to have to delay and distract them both if he wanted to even have a hope of getting away from the scene of his crimes. According to his instructors in the guild, one of the best ways to do that was to try and baffle all potential pursuers and witnesses with an endless stream of glib, silver-tongued patter.
“Thanks, buddy,” said Gerki, as he dropped the mask into the wizard’s outstretched hand. “Really appreciate you taking it off my hands. Not quite the right size for me, but of course, you saw that. Also, I think it clashes with my outfit. What do you think? You know what, never mind. It seems like you’ve got your hands full here, so I’d just best be going and leaving you to your cleaning…”
While Gerki did his best to put his blathering and bamboozling skills into practice, the wizard intoned a magical spell. A nimbus of orangish light surrounded the mask in the man’s hand. The mask’s outlines blurred, then began to twist into strange shapes, before the whole thing disappeared entirely.
“Stay there,” said the wizard. His eyes had never moved from Gerki, not even in the middle of invoking his spell. Either he had a very sharp focus or Gerki’s patter wasn’t nearly as good as he thought it was.
Gerki, a bit disappointed that his skills had not availed him, stared up at the wizard in silence.
The wizard arched a bushy grey eyebrow. “This is worse than I thought. You have no idea what just happened, do you?”
Gerki shook his head.
“It seems that the mask you were…ahem…admiring was a much more potent magical artifact than the professors had guessed. It apparently dominated your will, made you put it on, and then used your body as a conduit to channel an astounding amount of magical power.” The wizard swept a wide-sleeved arm around the destruction within the pavilion. “You see this? That was you.”
“Interesting theory,” said Gerki, grateful for the opportunity to get his mouth up and running again. “You say all this was me? That seems unlikely. I mean, I’m not a wizard. Honestly, I think I have the magical aptitude of your average…” He looked around. “Uh, flower bed. I mean, the ones you’d find growing anywhere other than Enchantment Park. Look, you know what I mean. That was a bad example. All I’m saying is that I’m no wizard and it wasn’t me that did all this.”
The wizard harrumphed. “Oh, I know that. The mask did it. Through you. Which means that it is both incredibly powerful and incredibly dangerous, and it is very, very lucky that it fell into the hands of an ordinary scofflaw instead of a trained mage who might have actually been able to do real damage.”
“Well, in that case,” said Gerki, sketching a bow. “Erm…Your Wizardyness? Uh…Your Enchantedness? Um…Your Grand High Imperial Archmagery…”
“Zot,” said the wizard, with an irritated sniff. “My name is Zot.”
“In that case, Zot, you’re welcome.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Well, near as I can tell, it’s fortunate that I happened to be nearby when the mask was looking for someone to possess, since it grabbed me and not one of your students. I think it’s also fortunate that it grabbed me now, when almost nobody else is in Enchantment Park, instead of trying to pull the same trick during the day when a lot of people…”
Zot pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Please stop talking. You’re not doing anything other than making noise, and it’s becoming both irritating and distracting. Now then, despite your, shall we generously say ‘heroic’ deed tonight, there’s still the matter of what I’m going to do with you and…”
Gerki bowed his head toward the floor, in what he hoped was an expression of defeat and contrition. However, what he was actually doing was looking around for anything he could use to get out of the predicament that the magical mask had gotten him into. He mentally catalogued all the detritus around him: splintered bits of display case, shards of broken glass, a small stone sphere heavily engraved with runes…
“…bring you back to the Collegium and get to the bottom of this,” said Zot. “After that, I’d imagine the City Guard will want to give you a stern talking to, at the very least.”
Gerki lashed out with one foot, hooking the stone sphere with the tops of his toes and propelling it straight up into the air. When it had risen to about the level of his chest, he kicked it with his other foot as hard as he could, launching it at Zot. The wizard fell backward as the stone sphere let out a satisfying bonging noise when it collided with his metal skullcap.
Gerki didn’t wait for Zot to hit the floor before he started running.
As he fled to one of the open sides of the pavilion, he heard his fellow Thieves’ Guild brethren calling out to him. He dared a glance back, and saw that the group of them had become ensnared in magically conjured webs, sudden spurts of entangling plant growth, spiral fields of mystical energy, and similar. Realizing that they had caught his attention, they shouted at him with renewed vigor.
“Nice one, Gerki!”
“That was great!”
“Now help us out!”
“Get those wizards, Gerk!”
“Wait! Where are you going?”
Gerki easily ignored the very slight pang of guilt that rattled around in his chest as he fled off into the night.
“So, yeah,” he said, looking ruefully up at Fiona. “Getting caught during an operation? Not so bad. Abandoning your fellow thieves to the mercies of the City Guard while you run away? After being the guy that got them caught in the first place? Much more bad.”
Fiona scrunched her freckled face up in thought. “I mean, I guess I can see that. That’s terrible. I’m sorry, Gerki. I know how much you had your heart set on joining the Thieves’ Guild.”
He tried to hide his discomfort with an amiable shrug. “Eh, it’s all right. Too many rules and regulations for me. Plus, they keep twenty percent of their members’ take. How am I supposed to make any money when they take twenty percent…and they don’t have to take any risks at all, the lazy jerks.”
“What about the wizard?” said Fiona, abruptly.
Gerki stopped. “What about what wizard?”
“The one with the bunny. The one that almost captured you. You know, Zot?”
“What about him?”
Fiona let out an overloud, frustrated sigh. “I can’t tell if you’re actually this thick, or if you’re doing it on purpose to annoy me. Anyway, think about it. Sometimes, you blank out, just like you did when you put on the mask. Zot used magic to make the mask stop controlling you. He told you he was going to study the mask to see how it worked. Which means he probably knows more about the mask now than he did then. Which means he might be able to help you with your problem.”
Gerki crossed his arms and frowned. “If I go to see him, he’ll throw me in jail!”
Fiona’s eyes got small and hard, in that way that they did when she was about to become especially stubborn. “Then you go with me to the temple.”
“Oh, come on, Gerk! They’ll just give you some new clothes, lock you in one of the dormitories, and escort you to the classrooms to continue your education. They’ll probably have to start over with you, too. You can do finger painting and blocks with the little, little kids, until you finally learn to share.”
“No,” he said again, turning around and attempting to determinedly walk away from Fiona.
She grabbed him by the shoulder. He found, to his dismay, that he was having a lot of trouble pulling free.
“It’s one or the other, Gerki. And, if that wizard feels the same way about you as you do about him, there’s no way he’s gonna want to keep you.”
He kept walking, trying to ignore Fiona and the two very bad choices she was presenting him with. But it actually wasn’t two bad choices, was it? It was three. Go to the temple, go see Zot, or let whatever weird magic was crackling around inside of his system fester and get worse. And it was, obviously, getting worse. Gerki vastly preferred if he were the only one calling the shots on his life. That’s why he was glad to be free from the orphanage, and it was also why he was reasonably fine with no longer being affiliated with the Thieves’ Guild. In a way, though, those two options were less bad than whatever enchantment had bored itself into his brain. At least he knew what the Great Temple and the Thieves’ Guild were about.
And, unlike the Great Temple, he might be ceding control of his life to Zot for only a few days, rather than indefinitely.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “Let’s go.”
The halls of the Mages’ Collegium were all polished wooden panels, crystal chandeliers, and vaulted ceilings. Everything was too nice, too posh, too clean. Seeing it made Gerki itch all over. He wasn’t sure if his body wanted to run back to the sheltering, familiar filth of the Undercity, or if it wanted to stuff as many small, easily-missed valuables into his pockets as he could fit. He decided to twiddle his thumbs and take long, deep, possibly cleansing breaths until he could sort it out for himself.
It made Gerki feel better that the mages and students of the Collegium seemed as deeply uncomfortable that he and Fiona were there as he did. With discomfited, yet professional, demeanors, mages of various types and ranks escorted or directed them to various rooms and various wings of the Collegium. They would then abandon Gerki and Fiona to either stand in a drafty hallway or sit in uncomfortable chairs until another mage came along and asked them what they were doing there. Then lips would be pursed, lists would be checked, and Gerki and Fiona would be quickly directed to yet another distant office, where the process would begin again.
Their most recent trek had placed them in the Office of Public Wizardry and Outreach, Adjunct and had landed them on an overstuffed couch upholstered in purple velvet. Paintings of old, dead wizards in ornate robes lined the walls, staring down at Gerki with what, he felt, were hugely judgmental expressions.
“And you are?”
“My name’s Gerki,” said Gerki, for approximately the fiftieth time, “and this is Fiona.”
“And you are here to see…”
“Zot.” said Gerki. “I met him in Enchantment Park a few months ago, at the fourth years’ exhibit. He’ll remember me.”
Gerki held his breath and glanced at Fiona. He was fully expecting to be directed elsewhere.
“I’ll just go see if he’s in, shall I?” said the gnome, who hopped down out of her chair and trundled over to one of the doors in the back of the room.
“See, I told you,” whispered Fiona. “You just have to be patient.”
“I don’t have to be anything,” said Gerki. “I don’t even want to be here.”
Fiona grinned at him and fluffed his curly hair. “Oh, stop being such a grump, Gerk. This is for your own good. This is going to help you.”
“Sure, if he doesn’t teleport me straight to the dungeon or turn me into a frog.”
“He’s not going to…” Fiona began to say. She stopped when she saw a shadow loom large over the two of them.
“Don’t be so sure,” said another voice.
Gerki looked up. Standing before them, drawn up to his full height, was Zot the Wizard, his bunny rabbit crouched on its shoulder as if ready to leap down at the pair of them. Zot seemed to be frowning as he inspected Gerki and Fiona.
“You’re quite right, Mathilde, I do know him,” said Zot to the gnomish mage standing in his shadow. “Send a Message spell to Vice-Chancellor Darvishon to tell him I’ll be late for our two-o-clock. Something important has come up and I need to take care of it in Lecture Hall A.”
Gerki leaped off of the couch, his hands suddenly damp with sweat. “Oh no, if you’ve already got something scheduled, I don’t want to keep you from it. Fiona and me could come back another time, isn’t that right, Fiona?”
“No,” said Fiona, standing up beside Gerki and giving him a sharp elbow jab to the ribs.
“I quite agree with the young lady,” said Zot. “There are several things that we need to clear up sooner rather than later, and since you’re here…”
Lecture Hall A was a cavernous amphitheater dimly lit by floating balls of magical light. Gerki was relieved to see that the large room was not completely empty. Other than himself, Fiona, Zot, and Zot’s rabbit, there were a handful of mages seated throughout the hall. Two of them seemed to be engaging in a quick snack. One of them was reading under the light of a slightly brighter, though much smaller, light sphere that hovered over her head. Another had tilted their chair back as far as it would go and seemed to be sleeping, their snores only slightly muffled by the cap they had pulled down over their face.
Zot made a mystical gesture and several of the light spheres brightened and moved to hover over the top of a black examination table.
“Take off your shoes and hop on there, if you please,” said Zot, before busying himself with opening a nearby cabinet.
Gerki felt a bit too cowed not to obey. The moment his head hit the hard pillow, though, he immediately regretted it and tried to get up.
“Look, wouldn’t it be easier if I were…”
Zot’s rabbit hopped on top of his chest, knocking the wind from Gerki’s lungs and forcing him back down onto the table. Gerki raised his head, only to see the rabbit baring a full set of unusually sharp teeth.
“You know,” said Gerki, resting his head back on the table. “On second thought, this is fine.”
Gerki craned his neck as Zot came into view, wearing a thick, light-grey smock over his sumptuous wizard’s robes. Zot handed a similar smock to Fiona before turning to a side table and methodically stripping the rings off of his fingers.
“What’s this for, Your Magesticalness?” asked Fiona.
Zot’s shoulders twitched and he stifled a snorting cough.
“Did Gerki tell you to call me that, young lady?”
Zot smirked as he slipped on a pair of elbow-length black canvas gloves. “Well, that’s very…nice…of him, but I assure you that we do not need to stand on formality. ‘Zot’ will do just fine, thank you very much. As for the smock, it’s for your protection, so I suggest you put it on.”
Fiona put the smock on over her head and reached around to tie it in the back.
“Wait,” said Gerki, as Zot came over to the table. “Why do you and Fi need protection? Do I get protection?”
Zot strapped on a formidable-looking metal mask forged in the shape of a demon’s head. Its thick lenses of dark blue glass enlarged the wizard’s eyes to a truly terrifying degree.
“Hang on,” said Gerki. “Wait. Why don’t I get protection? What’s that for? Fiona!”
“Yeah, hey!” said Fiona, still in the process of getting her smock situated. “You’re not gonna hurt him, are you?”
“I’m just going to give our mutual friend here a very thorough going-over. I assure you, young lady, Gerki is in very capable hands.”
“Pooky,” said Zot. “Make sure the little ragamuffin holds still, will you?”
The rabbit hopped, once, compressing Gerki’s ribs painfully.
“What do you feed this thing?”
“Street urchins,” said Zot, as he bent low, bringing the mask close to Gerki’s face. “Now do me a favor and stop squirming.”
Twin beams of sapphire light erupted from the mask’s lenses and played over Gerki’s face. The beams were surprisingly cold, and they had a spectral, twinkling quality that made Gerki feel dizzy and lightheaded. He tried to concentrate on Zot’s eyes behind the mask, hoping that they would give him a stabilizing anchor. Instead, he was very disturbed to note that the wizard’s large, too-blue eyes slowly distorted under his gaze, and began to spin ever so gently.
“What are you doing to me?”
“I am examining you,” said Zot. “Now, behave yourself or I really will turn you into a frog.”
Gerki went rigid, clenching his fists and biting his lip until the mask’s glass lenses finally went dark.
“You can sit up now,” said Zot, his voice muffled as he struggled to remove the mask.
To Gerki’s great relief, Pooky bounded off of his chest and onto the floor. Gerki sat up and swung his legs off of the edge of the table. He watched with interest as Zot removed his gloves and replaced both mask and smock inside of the nearby cabinet. He noticed that the wizard had gotten quite sweaty in the last few minutes, but whether it was due to the confines of the mask or the effort of using its magic, Gerki couldn’t say.
Fiona, who was sitting on a small stool by the door, waved at him with two fingers and mouthed the words, “are you all right?”
He gave her a wink and a thumbs up before standing up and moving over to the side table where Zot had deposited his many rings. Gerki glanced at them with undisguised avarice before looking over to make sure that the wizard was still rummaging around in the cabinet.
“Excuse me,” said one of the mages in the audience.
Gerki put his hands behind his back as Zot turned around.
The mage addressing Zot was the one who had been dozing earlier. They looked both nervous and perplexed.
“I’m sorry,” they said. “Is this…going to be on the final?”
Zot strode forward until he was but a step or two away from the first row of benches. He peered up at the still drowsy-looking student. The other three mages sitting in the amphitheater regarded the scene with varying degrees of contact embarrassment and disbelief. The woman reading by floating orb pulled her head inside her tall collar. One of the other mages giggled.
“Which class do you think this is?” said Zot, as Gerki carefully made his way from the side table over to Fiona.
“Uh…Abjuration with Professor Melligri?”
“Do I look like Professor Melligri?”
“Well…” the sleepy student paused. Squinted. “Uh. No.”
Meanwhile Gerki noted that while Fiona had been able to tie her smock around her back, she had done so with a massive snarl of a knot that only became tighter and stronger the more she pulled on it. Gerki took his hands out of his pocket and helped her work the knot free, whistling innocently.
“…suggest a cantrip of your own creation that is able to write the phrase, ‘I shall not sleep in class’ five hundred times,” said Zot, before turning away from the amphitheater seats. He placed his hands on his hips as he surveyed Gerki and Fiona. “Now. Where were we?”.
“You were gonna tell us what’s wrong with Gerki,” said Fiona, wadding up her now untied smock and casually shoving it into a nearby shelf. “You do know what’s wrong with him, don’t you, Zot?”
“I’m not going to go into the particulars,” said Zot, as he went back over to the side table, opened a drawer, and began rooting around in it. “Suffice it to say that the mask Gerki became briefly enamored with a while ago has some very nasty enchantments laid upon it. I had originally hoped that dispelling the active effect would have been enough to free him from it, but it seems he’s suffering from some residual effects.”
“What does that mean?” said Fiona, now looking a trifle worried.
“How to put this simply?” Zot did not look up from the contents of his overfull and disorganized drawer. “When people put on the mask, it magically compels them to do things. Even if that power is dispelled and the mask is removed, it still leaves behind some latent ability to control its former wearer.”
“But why?” asked Fiona.
“I’m not sure,” said Zot. “As you’ve said, the compulsion comes and goes seemingly at random and, when it takes effect, it seems to make Gerki do different things each time. That may be a good thing. It may mean that there’s just some leftover magic in his system that’s occasionally exerting its will, as opposed to a conscious force trying to take control of him. Ah, here it is.”
Zot straightened up and pulled a short, metal rod out of the drawer. It was topped by a large, lusterless black stone at one end. He approached Gerki, hefting the weighty implement in his hand.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“Cure you,” said Zot. “Hold still.”
Gerki felt a dull pain as Zot pressed the sphere at the end of the rod into the divot at the bridge of his nose. The wizard maintained the uncomfortable pressure on the rod as he mumbled an arcane invocation under his breath. Gerki’s eyes crossed, involuntarily, and waves of nausea momentarily wracked his small frame.
At last, the nausea faded, and Zot withdrew the rod from Gerki’s face.
“Is he cured?” said Fiona, hopping up from the stool.
“This Rod of Disjunction is rather potent, as far as breaking enchantments goes, so he should be. If he’s not, however, you should definitely bring him back here as soon as possible.” Zot shook his head somberly. “Not that I’m expecting that you will have a relapse, of course, but if you do, it means that we’re dealing with magic of a most insidious and powerful nature. I may have exhausted my resources, for now, but there are others in the Collegium who are far more skilled at this kind of thing than I am.”
Gerki took Fiona’s hand and began making his way away from Zot and, especially, away from Pooky. “Well, that’s great. Thanks, Zot. Don’t want to keep you from your previous appointment, so we’ll be going now!”
He had just about gotten his hand on the doorknob when Zot said, “oh, that reminds me. There’s one more thing I have to do.”
Fiona advanced toward the wizard, a frustrated look on her face. “You mean like to turn him over to the City Guard? Please, do you have to? He’s not even in the Thieves’ Guild anymore. It’s been months. Can’t you just let him go?”
“Of course I’m going to let him go,” Zot, with a tone that Gerki knew all too well was false innocence. “I just need to give him one more thing.”
“What’s that?” said Gerki, suspicious, but not too suspicious if it meant that he was going to get something.
Zot brought up the Rod of Disjunction and used it to give a firm tap to Gerki’s forehead. Gerki yowled and clutched his injured head in both hands.
“There,” said Zot, with smug satisfaction, “now we’re even.”
“Aaaugh,” shouted Gerki. “You vindictive…You…I hope I never have to see you again, you…crusty…wizard!”
Zot opened the lecture hall door with a flourish. “The feeling is mutual, Gerki. Have a wonderful day.”
Once the Mages’ Collegium was well and truly behind him, Gerki’s mood quickly rose. He found himself skipping down the hillside streets to the lower parts of Greyport, and was feeling so good that he even started whistling.
Fiona caught up with him, a slightly smug grin on her face.
“See,” she said. “I told you that you’d feel better.”
“You were right,” said Gerki, barely feeling a prick of indignation at her ‘I told you so.’ “He solved the problem and, apart from the little bump on my head, I’ve felt better than I have in months.”
“Good,” she replied. “It was very nice of him to let you go, even after what happened at Enchantment Park.”
“True,” said Gerki, as he reached into his pocket. “And being able to score this little bit of glittery treasure was just icing on the cake.”
He held out one of the rings that he had palmed off of the table in Lecture Hall A. It was gold, set with a smooth black stone, and it glowed warmly in the afternoon sunshine.
“Gerki!” shouted Fiona, covering the ring with her cupped hands. “Why did you take that? Are you crazy? What if the Thieves’ Guild finds out? What if Zot finds out?”
“The Thieves’ Guild won’t find out about it so long as you stop yelling your head off about it,” said Gerki with a smirk. “And that crusty old wizard had so many rings, I’m sure he won’t miss one. Or, if he does, I’m sure he’ll think he’s…”
“…just dropped it somewhere.”
Gerki’s tinny voice emanated from the small, glowing scrying pool located in the stone font in Vice-Chancellor Darvishon’s office. Two men and a rabbit stood over the font, watching as the slightly distorted figures vanished like the sun at dusk, presumably because Gerki had replaced it in his pocket.
“Very clever, Zot,” said Darvishon, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “How did you know he was going to steal that particular ring?”
Zot shrugged. “I didn’t. I enchanted them all and hoped he would take at least one. Ideally, he keeps it for a while before selling it. It will make it much easier to keep a watch over him and get to the bottom of this business.”
Darvishon returned his eyes to the font and the watery image still shimmering therein. “I hope that we do, old friend. I hope that we do.”
Tales from the Red Dragon Inn is live on Kickstarter until October 28, 2021!